Art: Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image at Michener Museum in Doylestown

Stephen Perloff, "Sunrise," archival pigment print, 1971.
Stephen Perloff, "Sunrise," archival pigment print, 1971.
Posted: December 03, 2012

For years, Brian Peterson's public face has been that of fine-art photographer and chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.

But with the exhibition "Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image," Peterson finally reveals his innermost persona, that of impassioned poet.

This unusual and daring project - it takes nerve to address such a subject - shouldn't come as a surprise to the Michener's audience.

Over the last three years, Peterson has written two books, The Smile at the Heart of Things and The Blossoming of the World, that prefigure this exhibition's intriguing format.

These aren't books of poetry - I don't know that he writes poetry - but Peterson responds to the wonders of the physical world and to the vicissitudes of life with a poet's consciousness and in a poet's voice.

The books are autobiographical, yet they reach beyond the boundaries of Peterson's memory to illuminate shared experience. They do so by juxtaposing words and images, mostly photographs, in an attempt to give emotional truth deeper resonance.

The exhibition germinates on Page 19 of Blossoming, when Peterson concludes a brief essay with the words "I need moments of beauty in my life."

We all do, and we find more than a few such moments in this stimulating show, for which Peterson has brought together work by 17 photographers and 16 poets from the region.

The photographers are represented in the usual way, by framed prints hung on the walls, the poets by recordings of themselves reading their work. Visitors listen through earphones at "poetry stations" in the four corners of the gallery in which the show is installed.

Peterson's own photographs would be perfectly at home here, but because he's the conceptual ringmaster they're not included. (Some by Bruce Katsiff, recently retired as the museum's director, are.) Aside from an introductory statement, Peterson's contribution consists of commentaries on some of the photographs. These brief essays are meant to encourage contemplation; they aren't intended to instruct viewers as to how they should respond or interpret.

In some recent exhibitions at the Michener, Peterson has set up installations that encourage such dialogue by giving viewers ways to comment on whatever is being exhibited. Beauty continues this initiative of offering a conversation, not a lecture. Viewers leave written comments in the gallery, or they can call them in on their cellphones; they also can listen to the poets on their phones from outside the museum.

Peterson's introductory statement sets the tone for the exhibition: "The world has an endless supply of terror. And an infinite supply of beauty. This exhibit is about the beauty side of the equation, but never forgets that beauty is not a vacation from reality. It is reality."

After that, you're pretty much on your own. Judiciously, Peterson doesn't attempt to define beauty; the exhibition presumes that we all know it when we see it. Of course, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, we all see it differently.

He does organize the photographs, most of them black-and-white, into four broad categories: lyrical beauty, which engages the imagination; empathic beauty, which reminds us what we share with others; corporeal beauty, which depicts "beauty of the body, of the earth, of the here and now"; and transforming beauty, "which finds the ethereal in the tangible, and makes tangible the ethereal."

As you go through the installation you might not be able to identify such distinctions, but that doesn't matter. You will recognize familiar types of images that represent consensus beauty - sunlight on a landscape or a body of water, details in nature exposed and transformed by close scrutiny, the aesthetic purity of common objects seen in isolation.

One test the exhibition poses is whether we can see beauty in something that ordinarily would repel us - for instance, in a luminous photo by Katsiff, the body of a dead raccoon, its tiny, graceful paws resting on silvery fur.

Aside from Katsiff, I haven't mentioned the photographers or the poets yet, because immersion in the show is more about the curator's vision and its defining images and words than about the creators individually.

Yet they're obviously essential, so here they are, alphabetically.

Photographers: Andrea Baldeck, Susan S. Bank, Michael Becotte, Will Brown, Howard Brunner, Paula Chamlee, Edmund B. Eckstein, Lisa Tyson Ennis, Emmet Gowin, Jeff Hurwitz, Katsiff, Stephen Perloff, Peter K. Philbin, Michael A. Smith, Sandy Sorlien, John Weiss, Stephen Guion Williams.

Poets: Sandra Becker, Christopher Bursk, Susan Charkes, Doris Ferleger, Eileen Flor, Patricia Goodrich, William Hollis, Joanne Leva, Bernadette McBride, Diana Loercher Pazicky, Hayden Saunier, Nancy Scott, Wendy Fulton Steginsky, Marylou Kelly Streznewski, Sean Webb, Connie Wrzesniewski.

Peterson doesn't comment on the poetry because, he says, the poems speak for themselves. Well, perhaps. Likewise I demur because poetry is outside my purview, and my competence.

I can say that the quality of the readings is uneven, but I don't suppose it was possible, or even desirable, to engage professionals. I also note that Peterson supports his poets by reproducing selected verses of Emily Dickinson.

I'm surprised, though, that he didn't include what is perhaps the most quoted paean to beauty by any poet, the concluding lines of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 


Art: Magic at the Michener

"Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image" continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through March 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is $15 general, $13 for seniors, $11 for college students with valid ID, and $7.50 for visitors 6 through 18. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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